Pros and Cons of Working as an Undergrad Researcher

In summers past, I’ve spent my time working  more “traditional” teenage jobs, such as a camp counselor or fast food employee. This summer, however, marks my first internship in a lab, and the day to day role of undergrad researcher has presented its own unique set of perks and drawbacks, such as:

#1: Not having a set schedule

Want to get off work before 1 PM so you can go to the beach? Or sleep in late every day? One of the best parts of working in a lab is the flexibility of my schedule. As long as my work gets done and I go to weekly meetings, I can choose what times I want to come in. However, this only works in my favor if the work actually gets done. Unlike a normal job, there is no set “clock out” time for me. I can go into lab early with the intent of having my afternoon free, but if the experiment needs to be redone, or someone else is using a piece of equipment I need, it looks like I’ll be staying late. I never really know what time I’ll end up leaving lab, and making plans with friends can get quite tricky, as there’s no guarantee if I’ll be able to make “dinner at 6”. While the lack of a set schedule can be frustrating, I believe it’s worth the flexibility and knowing you can leave as soon as your work is done, rather than waiting around until your shift is over.

#2: There’s always something to do

This brings me to my next point; there’s never any waiting around because there’s always something to do. Samples in the thermocycler for 3 hours? I can clean slides for the microscope, work on my powerpoint presentation for EUREKA!, or even start setting up the next part of my experiment. Sometimes, if there really isn’t much work to do, I’ll even go to the gym on campus while I wait for my samples to anneal and come back to lab when they’re ready. The flexibility of working in a lab allows me to utilize my time a lot more effectively, whether it’s getting my lab work done or other to do’s. However, there never seems to be an end the projects I can be doing. There’s always more data to analyze, more experiments to get ahead on, and more slides to clean. It can be hard to justify taking a full break for lunch knowing there’s something else that needs to be done or judge when it’s time to leave the lab for the day; there’s always more progress to be made. I find, however, I prefer being constantly busy and on my feet than sitting around staring at the clock, waiting until I can go home.

#3: You never stop learning

I might not be taking classes this summer, but I’m definitely learning just as much through my internship. I’m finally getting the hang of the various techniques we use in my lab, such as running an agarose gel or using the microscope. I’m also learning more about the science behind what we do, whether my PI is explaining a procedure to me or I’m reading a paper for our journal club. Yet, I still feel overwhelmed by how much I don’t know. In my past jobs, there was set start and end to my training, but that doesn’t feel like the case in the lab. There’s always a new protocol to learn, an unknown reason why an experiment failed, a new question to ask. The more I learn about the background behind the research I’m doing, the more it dawns on me how little of the science I understand and how much more I have to learn from my STEM courses at UCSB. The feeling is overwhelming, but at the same time exciting, and I’m looking forward to the many years of learning from both formal schooling and research I have ahead of me.